Rebuilding the Pentagon Without Fixing Its Crumbling Foundation: Obama’s Plan for the US Military

Yesterday, President Obama made a rare trip to the Pentagon pressroom to announce the results of a new strategic plan for the Department of Defense (DoD). This plan promises to change some of the basic strategies of the DoD and is influenced by the promise to cut $487 billion from the DoD budget in ten years.

This press conference and the follow-up briefing by Pentagon officials outlined broad concepts. The officials said that the details would emerge when the president releases his fiscal year 2013 budget in a few weeks.

There are some winners and losers here. There will be more emphasis on Asia and general areas of the Middle East (read Iran). The emphasis for any type of ground military action won't be unilateral, but instead, it will be like the template set with the US and NATO action in Libya. Large standing ground troops waiting for long occupations are out; intelligence, surveillance and counterterrorism are in. There will be an emphasis on lean and agile forces that can respond quickly to any part of the world. Obama also stressed that the defense budget would continue to grow, but at a slower rate. To ward off the “soft on security” detractors, he reminded us that the military budget will still be larger than at the end of the Bush administration and we are still spending as much as the next ten top defense spending countries in the world. He balanced that by quoting President Eisenhower's admonition that spending on the Pentagon can take away from our economy and that can also threaten our national security.

It was a mixed message that could worry some of the DoD's powerful constituencies, but they, as in the past, can find a way to keep the Pentagon churning out their comfortable large weapon systems and keep the DoD contractors happy.

For the past ten years and for the first time in many decades, the Army has been center stage in the DoD because of the long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the large number of standing troops. Most procurement money went to small military hardware, such as vehicles, improvised explosive device prevention, and other troop transport. The Army has been playing with complex gear and weapons for the ground troops while the Air Force and the Navy have been pushing their cold war clones of planes and ships while trying to pound anything new into the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. Moving away from large ground troops and toward supporting the Asian theater will have the Air Force and Navy excited about the need for more planes and ships.

Even though there is to be an emphasis on small and agile, these services will work to make sure that any new idea that is supposed to be small and agile will be laden with all types of techno gizmos, whether they are useful on the battlefield or not. The Pentagon and their contractors have spent decades running up the size and costs of weapons because fiefdoms within the DoD procurement world would have to decrease in budget if the weapon system is too cheap and effective. Even if the civilian leadership in the DoD tries to keep the forces agile and fluid to meet changing demands, the procurement money forces will push for large, heavy and expensive weapons that mimic the familiar weapons of the cold war. Based on what I have seen in the past, the strategy which the president has laid out can be usurped and bastardized by the weapons buying community in the Pentagon and the contracting world.

At one point in the briefing, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke of needing to keep up the “industrial base” while downsizing the types and amount of weapon spending. This was a code word to the contractors that they won't see too many cuts to hurt their lucrative business plans, and I suspect that the cuts in the quantity of our weapons from the contractors will be made up with foreign military sales. That is happening right now with the beleaguered and failing F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Pentagon is trying to save by peddling it around the world.

There was one short mention by Panetta about working on waste and inefficiency, but it was basically a throwaway line. Until the DoD can get control of its money and reform the military and contractor love affair, the administration may just be pushing and pulling on imaginary levers while thinking they are making real change.

I believe that this administration may be trying to build a new house on a bad foundation. As any building inspector, here is my punch list on what you need to do on the foundation before you try to build the new house.

  • Get control of the money flow. Right now, the Pentagon admits that it is inauditable (a clunky but sad word that they use). They cannot pass an overall fiscal audit through they have been required to do so since 1999. Though this administration had plans to try to pass the audit by 2014, the Congress pushed the requirement back to 2017. The problem is more basic than that. The audit of the Pentagon has to be fixed from the bottom transactions up because, if those transactions are sketchy, you have an audit system at the top that has “garbage in, garbage out.”
  • Change the way that weapons are priced. Right now, the Pentagon buys weapons based on the price of the weapon previous to it, known as historical pricing. That means with that all the previous generations of weapons' fraud, waste and abuse, costs are factored in and the prices raised exponentially generation after generation. That is why the weapons budget is supremely high while we buy fewer and fewer units. The fix to this, which some in the Pentagon are trying to introduce, is to price weapons based on what they “should cost,” using a clean slate of pricing based on what it really costs to make the weapon.
  • Don't advance the weapon system into full production while it is still being testing. That is known as “concurrency” and has produced drastic mistakes and expensive fixes (which contractors love because the DoD pays for most of it). The F-35 is the poster child of why this shouldn't be done with even the F-35 program manager admitting that it has a high amount of problems.
  • Stop the self-dealing between the Pentagon and the contractors. The worse problem of this is the revolving door, especially with retired generals going to work or consult with defense firms. It is corrupting to the whole system and is very bad for morale for the people still working in the DoD to see their bosses and colleagues sell out to the contractors. I have outlined some tough love on how to stop this in one of my Solutions columns, but it will take political courage to stop this crazy and destructive practice.
  • Congress and/or the administration need to withhold parts of DoD appropriations when they aren't getting the information they need or a program continues to fail. Money speaks to the bureaucracy in the DoD, who will be there longer than the politicians and political appointees, and holding up their fuel line is often the only way to reform them. They will work around any reform of the system by the administration and Congress like crabgrass through concrete unless they think the money flow could be withheld or reduced. The president and the Congress have this powerful carrot and stick tool, but are especially afraid to use it on the DoD because the generals will scream that they don't care about the troops. This also takes political courage, but any change in strategy or reform will fail without it.

I have addressed most of these reforms in my Solutions columns. I believe that we will have to wait until the budget comes out to know what is really happening because money speaks in the Pentagon. As Win Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project said, “Press conference words are nice; actual budgets are the ultimate expression of policy and strategy.”